Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

Massacre of St. Bartholomew


As the solemn dirge from the steeple rang out upon the night air, the king stood at the window of the palace trembling in every nerve. Hardly had the first tones of the alarm-bell fallen upon his ear when the report of a musket was heard, and the first victim fell. The sound seemed to animate to frenzy the demoniac Catharine, while it almost froze the blood in the veins of the young monarch, and he passionately called out for the massacre to be stopped. It was too late. The train was fired, and could not be extinguished. The signal passed with the rapidity of sound from steeple to steeple, till not only Paris, but entire France, was roused. The roar of human passion, the crackling fire of musketry, and the shrieks of the wounded and the dying, rose and blended in one fearful din throughout the whole metropolis. Guns, pistols, daggers, were every where busy. Old men, terrified maidens, helpless infants, venerable matrons, were alike smitten, and mercy had no appeal which could touch the heart of the murderers.

The wounded Admiral Coligni was lying helpless upon his bed, surrounded by a few personal friends, as the uproar of the rising storm of human violence and rage rolled in upon their ears. The Duke of Guise, with three hundred soldiers, hastened to the lodgings of the admiral. The gates were immediately knocked down, and the sentinels stabbed. A servant, greatly terrified, rushed into the inner apartment where the wounded admiral was lying, and exclaimed,

"The house is forced, and there is no means of resisting."

"I have long since," said the admiral, calmly, "prepared myself to die. Save yourselves, my friends, if you can, for you can not defend my life. I commend my soul to the mercy of God."

The companions of the admiral, having no possible means of protection, and perhaps adding to his peril by their presence, immediately fled to other apartments of the house. They were pursued and stabbed. Three leaped from the windows and were shot in the streets.

Coligni, left alone in his apartment, rose with difficulty from his bed, and, being unable to stand, leaned for support against the wall. A desperado by the name of Breme, a follower of the Duke of Guise, with a congenial band of accomplices, rushed into the room. They saw a venerable man, pale, and with bandaged wounds, in his night-dress, engaged in prayer.

"Art thou the admiral?" demanded the assassin, with brandished sword.

"I am," replied the admiral; "and thou, young man, shouldst respect my gray hairs. Nevertheless, thou canst abridge my life but a little."

Breme plunged his sword into his bosom, and then withdrawing it, gave him a cut upon the head. The admiral fell, calmly saying, "If I could but die by the hand of a gentleman instead of such a knave as this!" The rest of the assassins then rushed upon him, piercing his body with their daggers.

The Duke of Guise, ashamed himself to meet the eye of this noble victim to the basest treachery, remained impatiently in the court-yard below.

"Breme!" he shouted, looking up at the window, "have you done it?"

"Yes," Breme exclaimed from the chamber, "he is done for."

"Let us see, though," rejoined the duke. "Throw the body from the window."

The mangled corpse was immediately thrown down upon the pavement of the court-yard. The duke, with his handkerchief, wiped the blood and the dirt from his face, and carefully scrutinized the features.

"Yes," said he, "I recognize him. He is the man."

Then giving the pallid cheek a kick, he exclaimed, "Courage, comrades! we have happily begun. Let us now go for others. The king commands it."

In sixteen years from this event the Duke of Guise was himself assassinated, and received a kick in the face from Henry III., brother of the same king in whose service he had drawn the dagger of the murderer. Thus died the Admiral Coligni, one of the noblest sons of France. Though but fifty-six years of age, he was prematurely infirm from care, and toil, and suffering.

For three days the body was exposed to the insults of the populace, and finally was hung up by the feet on a gibbet. A cousin of Coligni secretly caused it to be taken down and buried.

The tiger, having once lapped his tongue in blood, seems to be imbued with a new spirit of ferocity. There is in man a similar temper, which is roused and stimulated by carnage. The excitement of human slaughter converts man into a demon. The riotous multitude of Parisians was becoming each moment more and more clamorous for blood. They broke open the houses of the Protestants, and, rushing into their chambers, murdered indiscriminately both sexes and every age. The streets resounded with the shouts of the assassins and the shrieks of their victims. Cries of "Kill! kill! more blood!" rent the air. The bodies of the slain were thrown out of the windows into the streets, and the pavements of the city were clotted with human gore.

Charles, who was overwhelmed with such compunctions of conscience when he heard the first shot, and beheld from his window the commencement of the butchery, soon recovered from his momentary wavering, and, conscious that it was too late to draw back, with fiendlike eagerness engaged himself in the work of death. The monarch, when a boy, had been noted for his sanguinary spirit, delighting with his own hand to perform the revolting acts of the slaughter-house. Perfect fury seemed now to take possession of him. His cheeks were flushed, his lips compressed, his eyes glared with frenzy. Bending eagerly from his window, he shouted words of encouragement to the assassins. Grasping a gun, in the handling of which he had become very skillful from long practice in the chase, he watched, like a sportsman, for his prey; and when he saw an unfortunate Protestant, wounded and bleeding, flying from his pursuers, he would take deliberate aim from the window of his palace, and shout with exultation as he saw him fall, pierced by his bullet. A crowd of fugitives rushed into the court-yard of the Louvre to throw themselves upon the protection of the king. Charles sent his own body-guard into the yard, with guns and daggers, to butcher them all, and the pavements of the palace-yard were drenched with their blood.

[Illustration] from Henry IV by John S. C. Abbott


Just before the carnage commenced, Marguerite, weary with excitement and the agitating conversation to which she had so long been listening, retired to her private apartment for sleep. She had hardly closed her eyes when the fearful outcries of the pursuers and the pursued filled the palace. She sprang up in her bed, and heard some one struggling at the door, and shrieking "Navarre! Navarre!" In a paroxysm of terror, she ordered an attendant to open the door. One of her husband's retinue instantly rushed in, covered with wounds and blood, pursued by four soldiers of her brother's guard. The captain of the guard entered at the same moment, and, at the earnest entreaty of the princess, spared her the anguish of seeing the friend of her husband murdered before her eyes.

Marguerite, half delirious with bewilderment and terror, fled from her room to seek the apartment of her sister. The palace was filled with uproar, the shouts of the assassins and the shrieks of their victims blending in awful confusion. As she was rushing through the hall, she encountered another Protestant gentleman flying before the dripping sword of his pursuer. He was covered with blood, flowing from the many wounds he had already received. Just as he reached the young Queen of Navarre, his pursuer overtook him and plunged a sword through his body. He fell dead at her feet.

No tongue can tell the horrors of that night. It would require volumes to record the frightful scenes which were enacted before the morning dawned. Among the most remarkable escapes we may mention that of a lad whose name afterward attained much celebrity. The Baron de Rosny, a Protestant lord of great influence and worth, had accompanied his son Maximilian, a very intelligent and spirited boy, about eleven years of age, to Paris, to attend the nuptials of the King of Navarre. This young prince, Maximilian, afterward the world-renowned Duke of Sully, had previously been prosecuting his studies in the College of Burgundy, in the metropolis, and had become a very great favorite of the warm-hearted King of Navarre. His father had come to Paris with great reluctance, for he had no confidence in the protestations of Catharine and Charles IX. Immediately after the attempt was made to assassinate the admiral, the Baron de Rosny, with many of his friends, left the city, intrusting his son to the care of a private tutor and a valet de chambre. He occupied lodgings in a remote quarter of the city and near the colleges.

Young Maximilian was asleep in his room, when, a little after midnight, he was aroused by the ringing of the alarm-bells, and the confused cries of the populace. His tutor and valet de chambre sprang from their beds, and hurried out to ascertain the cause of the tumult. They did not, however, return, for they had hardly reached the door when they were shot down. Maximilian, in great bewilderment respecting their continued absence, and the dreadful clamor continually increasing, was hurriedly dressing himself, when his landlord came in, pale and trembling, and informed him of the massacre which was going on, and that he had saved his own life only by the avowal of his faith in the Catholic religion. He earnestly urged Maximilian to do the same. The young prince magnanimously resolved not to save his life by falsehood and apostasy. He determined to attempt, in the darkness and confusion of the night, to gain the College of Burgundy, where he hoped to find some Catholic friends who would protect him.

The distance of the college from the house in which he was rendered the undertaking desperately perilous. Having disguised himself in the dress of a Roman Catholic priest, he took a large prayer-book under his arm, and tremblingly issued forth into the streets. The sights which met his eye in the gloom of that awful night were enough to appal the stoutest heart. The murderers, frantic with excitement and intoxication, were uttering wild outcries, and pursuing, in every direction, their terrified victims. Women and children, in their night-clothes, having just sprung in terror from their beds, were flying from their pursuers, covered with wounds, and uttering fearful shrieks. The mangled bodies of the young and of the old, of males and females, were strewn along the streets, and the pavements were slippery with blood. Loud and dreadful outcries were heard from the interior of the dwellings as the work of midnight assassination proceeded; and struggles of desperate violence were witnessed, as the murderers attempted to throw their bleeding and dying victims from the high windows of chambers and attics upon the pavements below. The shouts of the assailants, the shrieks of the wounded, as blow after blow fell upon them, the incessant reports of muskets and pistols, the tramp of soldiers, and the peals of the alarm-bell, all combined to create a scene of terror such as human eyes have seldom witnessed. In the midst of ten thousand perils, the young man crept along, protected by his priestly garb, while he frequently saw his fellow-Christians shot and stabbed at his very side.

Suddenly, in turning a corner, he fell into the midst of a band of the body-guard of the king, whose swords were dripping with blood. They seized him with great roughness, when, seeing the Catholic prayer-book which was in his hands, they considered it a safe passport, and permitted him to continue on his way uninjured. Twice again he encountered similar peril, as he was seized by bands of infuriated men, and each time he was extricated in the same way.

At length he arrived at the College of Burgundy; and now his danger increased tenfold. It was a Catholic college. The porter at the gate absolutely refused him admittance. The murderers began to multiply in the street around him with fierce and threatening questions. Maximilian at length, by inquiring for La Faye, the president of the college, and by placing a bribe in the hands of the porter, succeeded in obtaining entrance. La Faye was a humane man, and exceedingly attached to his Protestant pupil. Maximilian entered the apartment of the president, and found there two Catholic priests. The priests, as soon as they saw him, insisted upon cutting him down, declaring that the king had commanded that not even the infant at the breast should be spared. The good old man, however, firmly resolved to protect his young friend, and, conducting him privately to a secure chamber, locked him up. Here he remained three days in the greatest suspense, apprehensive every hour that the assassins would break in upon him. A faithful servant of the president brought him food, but could tell him of nothing but deeds of treachery and blood. At the end of three days, the heroic boy, who afterward attained great celebrity as the minister and bosom friend of Henry, was released and protected.

The morning of St. Bartholomew's day had not dawned when a band of soldiers entered the chamber of Henry of Navarre and conveyed him to the presence of the king. Frenzied with the excitements of the scene, the imbecile but passionate monarch received him with a countenance inflamed with fury. With blasphemous oaths and imprecations, he commanded the King of Navarre, as he valued his life, to abandon a religion which Charles affirmed that the Protestants had assumed only as a cloak for their rebellion. With violent gesticulations and threats, he declared that he would no longer submit to be contradicted by his subjects, but that they should revere him as the image of God. Henry, who was a Protestant from considerations of state policy rather than from Christian principle, and who saw in the conflict merely a strife between two political parties, ingloriously yielded to that necessity by which alone he could save his life. Charles gave him three days to deliberate, declaring, with a violent oath, that if, at the end of that time, he did not yield to his commands, he would cause him to be strangled. Henry yielded. He not only went to mass himself, but submitted to the degradation of sending an edict to his own dominions, prohibiting the exercise of any religion except that of Rome. This indecision was a serious blot upon his character. Energetic and decisive as he was in all his measures of government, his religious convictions were ever feeble and wavering.

When the darkness of night passed away and the morning of the Sabbath dawned upon Paris, a spectacle was witnessed such as the streets even of that blood-renowned metropolis have seldom presented. The city still resounded with that most awful of all tumults, the clamor of an infuriated mob. The pavements were covered with gory corpses. Men, women, and children were still flying in every direction, wounded and bleeding, pursued by merciless assassins, riotous with demoniac laughter and drunk with blood. The report of guns and pistols was heard in all parts of the city, sometimes in continuous volleys, as if platoons of soldiers were firing upon their victims, while the scattered shots, incessantly repeated in every section of the extended metropolis, proved the universality of the massacre. Drunken wretches, besmeared with blood, were swaggering along the streets, with ribald jests and demoniac howlings, hunting for the Protestants. Bodies, torn and gory, were hanging from the windows, and dissevered heads were spurned like footballs along the pavements. Priests were seen in their sacerdotal robes, with elevated crucifixes, and with fanatical exclamations encouraging the murderers not to grow weary in their holy work of exterminating God's enemies. The most distinguished nobles and generals of the court and the camp of Charles, mounted on horseback with gorgeous retinue, rode through the streets, encouraging by voice and arm the indiscriminate massacre.

"Let not," the king proclaimed, "one single Protestant be spared to reproach me hereafter with this deed."

For a whole week the massacre continued, and it was computed that from eighty to a hundred thousand Protestants were slain throughout the kingdom.

Charles himself, with Catharine and the highborn but profligate ladies who disgraced her court, emerged with the morning light, in splendid array, into the reeking streets. The ladies contemplated with merriment and ribald jests the dead bodies of the Protestants piled up before the Louvre. Some of the retinue, appalled by the horrid spectacle, wished to retire, alleging that the bodies already emitted a putrid odor. Charles inhumanly replied, "The smell of a dead enemy is always pleasant."

On Thursday, after four days spent in hunting out the fugitives and finishing the bloody work, the clergy paraded the streets in a triumphal procession, and with jubilant prayers and hymns gave thanks to God for their great victory. The Catholic pulpits resounded with exultant harangues, and in honor of the event a medallion was struck off, with the inscription "La piete a reveille la justice"Religion has awakened justice.

In the distant provinces of France the massacre was continued, as the Protestants were hunted from all their hiding-places. In some departments, as in Santonge and Lower Languedoc, the Protestants were so numerous that the Catholics did not venture to attack them. In some other provinces they were so few that the Catholics had nothing whatever to fear from them, and therefore spared them; and in the sparsely-settled rural districts the peasants refused to imbrue their hands in the blood of their neighbors. Many thousand Protestants throughout the kingdom in these ways escaped.

But in nearly all the populous towns, where the Catholic population predominated, the massacre was universal and indiscriminate. In Meaux, four hundred houses of Protestants were pillaged and devastated, and the inmates, without regard to age or sex, utterly exterminated. At Orleans there were three thousand Protestants. A troop of armed horsemen rode furiously through the streets, shouting, "Courage, boys! kill all, and then you shall divide their property." At Rouen, many of the Protestants, at the first alarm, fled. The rest were arrested and thrown into prison. They were then brought out one by one, and deliberately murdered. Six hundred were thus slain. Such were the scenes which were enacted in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Bourges, Angers, Lyons, and scores of other cities in France. It is impossible to ascertain with precision the number of victims. The Duke of Sully estimates them at seventy thousand; the Bishop Perefixe at one hundred thousand. This latter estimate is probably not exaggerated, if we include the unhappy fugitives, who, fleeing from their homes, died of cold, hunger, and fatigue, and all the other nameless woes which accrued from this great calamity.

In the midst of these scenes of horror it is pleasant to record several instances of generous humanity. In the barbarism of those times dueling was a common practice. A Catholic officer by the name of Vessins, one of the most fierce and irritable men in France, had a private quarrel with a Protestant officer whose name was Regnier. They had mutually sought each other in Paris to obtain such satisfaction as a duel could afford. In the midst of the massacre, Regnier, while at prayers with his servant (for in those days dueling and praying were not deemed inconsistent), heard the door of his room broken open, and, looking round in expectation of instant death, saw his foe Vessins enter breathless with excitement and haste. Regnier, conscious that all resistance would be unavailing, calmly bared his bosom to his enemy, exclaiming,

"You will have an easy victory."

Vessins made no reply, but ordered the valet to seek his master's cloak and sword. Then leading him into the street, he mounted him upon a powerful horse, and with fifteen armed men escorted him out of the city. Not a word was exchanged between them. When they arrived at a little grove at a short distance from the residence of the Protestant gentleman, Vessins presented him with his sword, and bade him dismount and defend himself, saying,

"Do not imagine that I seek your friendship by what I have done. All I wish is to take your life honorably."

Regnier threw away his sword, saying, "I will never strike at one who has saved my life."

"Very well!" Vessins replied, and left him, making him a present of the horse on which he rode.

Though the commands which the king sent to the various provinces of France for the massacre were very generally obeyed, there were examples of distinguished virtue, in which Catholics of high rank not only refused to imbrue their own hands in blood, but periled their lives to protect the Protestants. The Bishop of Lisieux, in the exercise of true Christian charity, saved all the Protestants in the town over which he presided. The Governor of Auvergne replied to the secret letter of the king in the following words:

"Sire, I have received an order, under your majesty's seal, to put all the Protestants of this province to death, and if, which God forbid, the order be genuine, I respect your majesty still too much to obey you."

The king had sent a similar order to the commandant at Bayonne, the Viscount of Orthez. The following noble words were returned in reply:

"Sire, I have communicated the commands of your majesty to the inhabitants of the town and to the soldiers of the garrison, and I have found good citizens and brave soldiers, but not one executioner; on which account, they and I humbly beseech you to employ our arms and our lives in enterprises in which we can conscientiously engage. However perilous they may be, we will willingly shed therein the last drop of our blood."

Both of these noble-minded men soon after very suddenly and mysteriously died. Few entertained a doubt that poison had been administered by the order of Charles.

The law of France required that these Protestants should be hunted to death. This was the law promulgated by the king and sent by his own letters missive to the appointed officers of the crown.

But there is—there is a HIGHER LAW than that of kings and courts. Nobly these majestic men rendered to it their allegiance. They sealed their fidelity to this HIGHER LAW with their blood. They were martyrs, not fanatics.

On the third day of the massacre the king assembled the Parliament in Paris, and made a public avowal of the part he had taken in this fearful tragedy, and of the reasons which had influenced him to the deed. Though he hoped to silence all Protestant tongues in his own realms in death, he knew that the tale would be told throughout all Europe. He therefore stated, in justification of the act, that he had, "as if by a miracle," discovered that the Protestants were engaged in a conspiracy against his own life and that of all of his family.

This charge, however, uttered for the moment, was speedily dropped and forgotten. There was not the slightest evidence of such a design.

The Parliament, to give a little semblance of justice to the king's accusation, sat in judgment upon the memory of the noble Coligni. They sentenced him to be hung in effigy; ordered his arms to be dragged at the heels of a horse through all the principal towns of France; his magnificent castle of Chatillon to be razed to its foundations, and never to be rebuilt; his fertile acres, in the culture of which he had found his chief delight, to be desolated and sown with salt; his portraits and statues, wherever found, to be destroyed; his children to lose their title of nobility; all his goods and estates to be confiscated to the use of the crown, and a monument of durable marble to be raised, upon which this sentence of the court should be engraved, to transmit to all posterity his alleged infamy. Thus was punished on earth one of the noblest servants both of God and man. But there is a day of final judgment yet to come. The oppressor has but his brief hour. There is eternity to right the oppressed.

Notwithstanding this general and awful massacre, the Protestants were far from being exterminated. Several nobles, surrounded by their retainers in their distant castles, suspicious of treachery, had refused to go to Paris to attend the wedding of Henry and Marguerite. Others who had gone to Paris, alarmed by the attack upon Admiral Coligni, immediately retired to their homes. Some concealed themselves in garrets, cellars, and wells until the massacre was over. As has been stated, in some towns the governors refused to engage in the merciless butchery, and in others the Protestants had the majority, and with their own arms could defend themselves within the walls which their own troops garrisoned.

Though, in the first panic caused by the dreadful slaughter, the Protestants made no resistance, but either surrendered themselves submissively to the sword of the assassin, or sought safety in concealment or flight, soon indignation took the place of fear. Those who had fled from the kingdom to Protestant states rallied together. The survivors in France began to count their numbers and marshal their forces for self-preservation. From every part of Protestant Europe a cry of horror and execration simultaneously arose in view of this crime of unparalleled enormity. In many places the Catholics themselves seemed appalled in contemplation of the deed they had perpetrated. Words of sympathy were sent to these martyrs to a pure faith from many of the Protestant kingdoms, with pledges of determined and efficient aid. The Protestants rapidly gained courage. From all the country, they flocked into those walled towns which still remained in their power.

As the fugitives from France, emaciate, pale, and woe-stricken, with tattered and dusty garb, recited in England, Switzerland, and Germany the horrid story of the massacre, the hearts of their auditors were frozen with horror. In Geneva a day of fasting and prayer was instituted, which is observed even to the present day. In Scotland every church resounded with the thrilling tale; and Knox, whose inflexible spirit was nerved for those iron times, exclaimed, in language of prophetic nerve,

"Sentence has gone forth against that murderer, the King of France, and the vengeance of God will never be withdrawn from his house. His name shall be held in everlasting execration."

The French court, alarmed by the indignation it had aroused, sent an embassador to London with a poor apology for the crime, by pretending that the Protestants had conspired against the life of the king. The embassador was received in the court of the queen with appalling coldness and gloom. Arrangements were made to invest the occasion with the most impressive solemnity. The court was shrouded in mourning, and all the lords and ladies appeared in sable weeds. A stern and sombre sadness was upon every countenance. The embassador, overwhelmed by his reception, was overheard to exclaim to himself, in bitterness of heart,

"I am ashamed to acknowledge myself a Frenchman."

He entered, however, the presence of the queen, passed through the long line of silent courtiers, who refused to salute him, or even to honor him with a look, stammered out his miserable apology, and, receiving no response, retired covered with confusion. Elizabeth, we thank thee! This one noble deed atones for many of thy crimes.

Very different was the reception of these tidings in the court of Rome. The messenger who carried the news was received with transports of joy, and was rewarded with a thousand pieces of gold. Cannons were fired, bells rung, and an immense procession, with all the trappings of sacerdotal rejoicing, paraded the streets. Anthems were chanted and thanksgivings were solemnly offered for the great victory over the enemies of the Church. A gold medal was struck off to commemorate the event; and Charles IX. and Catharine were pronounced, by the infallible word of his holiness, to be the especial favorites of God. Spain and the Netherlands united with Rome in these infamous exultations. Philip II. wrote from Madrid to Catharine,

"These tidings are the greatest and the most glorious I could have received."

Such was the awful massacre of St. Bartholomew. When contemplated in all its aspects of perfidy, cruelty, and cowardice, it must be pronounced the greatest crime recorded in history. The victims were invited under the guise of friendship to Paris. They were received with solemn oaths of peace and protection. The leading men in the nation placed the dagger in the hands of an ignorant and degraded people. The priests, professed ministers of Jesus Christ, stimulated the benighted multitude by all the appeals of fanaticism to exterminate those whom they denounced as the enemies of God and man. After the great atrocity was perpetrated, princes and priests, with blood-stained hands, flocked to the altars of God, our common Father, to thank him that the massacre had been accomplished.

The annals of the world are filled with narratives of crime and woe, but the Massacre of St. Bartholomew stands perhaps without a parallel.

It has been said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." This is only true with exceptions. Protestantism in France has never recovered from this blow. But for this massacre one half of the nobles of France would have continued Protestant. The Reformers would have constituted so large a portion of the population that mutual toleration would have been necessary. Henry IV. would not have abjured the Protestant faith. Intelligence would have been diffused; religion would have been respected; and in all probability, the horrors of the French Revolution would have been averted.

God is an avenger. In the mysterious government which he wields, mysterious only to our feeble vision, he "visits the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, even unto the third and fourth generation." As we see the priests of Paris and of France, during the awful tragedy of the Revolution, massacred in the prisons, shot in the streets, hung upon the lamp-posts, and driven in starvation and woe from the kingdom, we can not but remember the day of St. Bartholomew. The 24th of August, 1572, and the 2d of September, 1792, though far apart in the records of time, are consecutive days in the government of God.